Why Pirelli is building 5G connectivity into its new "Cyber Tires"
The Internet of Things age is dawning, as ultra-fast 5G connectivity opens up communications between everything from your toaster to your pacemaker, leading to a weird kind of digital utopia where everything's talking to everything else. If Pirelli gets its way, your car tires will be little chatterboxes too, yapping away not only to your own car's ECU, but to other cars and roadside infrastructure as well.
What on Earth could tires have to yabber about? Well, the world's first 5G-connected tire, the Pirelli Cyber Tire, is up and running, and it's got a sensor, processor and communications disc about the size of a medium coin embedded inside that's designed to constantly monitor a bunch of variables.
We're talking tire pressure (of course), tread depth, tire temperature, acceleration along longitudinal, lateral and rotational axes, and the ability to sense water and ice on the road. When fitted to a car, the Cyber Tire feeds all this information back to the car's ECU, along with warnings like "the road just got wet," or "ice detected," or "there's a heavy load in the car right now, bump up the suspension preload," or "grip may be compromised" that the car can use to determine what it should be doing with engine mappings, traction control settings, or even suspension. Pirelli seems to think it might send "slow down" signals as well, that bring the car down to a safe speed to hit a piece of wet road at.
Last week, Pirelli held a demonstration of the next step in Cyber Tire connectivity, on the top of the remarkable Lingotto building in Turin, Italy. Originally built as a Fiat factory, the Lingotto building is now a shopping mall, but the giant banked test track on its roof bears testimony to its remarkable history. When the factory opened in 1923, it was an industrial masterpiece, a five-story assembly line spiraling upward. Raw materials would come into the ground floor, and finished cars would emerge onto the test track on the roof, to be checked out before being sent out to dealerships.
Pirelli stuck some of its Cyber Tires – highly racy P Zero Trofeo versions – onto an Audi A8, and had a Q8 follow it around the track. When the A8 ran over some water, it pinged a 5G V2X tower with a "water on the road" alert signal, and the following Q8 received the warning before it got there.
As automotive demonstrations go, it can't've been much of a spectacle. But Pirelli is deadly serious about pushing this tech forward as part of its OEM partnerships with auto manufacturers. It's no use having a smart tire if the car's not designed to take advantage of it. Pirelli says it's likely to debut on high-end cars, simply because they challenge the grip of their tires more frequently, and have more automated features that might be able to take advantage of the information: adaptive cruise, active suspension, auto-emergency braking, active aerodynamics and whatnot. Lower end cars should follow soon enough, as the per-unit costs of fitting Cyber Tires don't add much to the cost of the car.
Pirelli's already using Cyber Tires as part of truck fleet management, where it's particularly handy as a way to instantly let a service crew know which hoops on an 18-wheeler need topping up at the air hose and which can be left alone.